Why China-Japan Spat Won’t Lead to War

Last Tuesday, a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard boats near the tiny Diaoyutai Islands (as they’re known to Taiwan. China calls them the Diaoyu. Japan calls them the Senkaku. All three countries claim them as their own.)

Japan took the captain and crew of the fishing boat hostage. It released the crew today, but the captain and boat remain in custody, pending a Japanese investigation. The arrests underline an ongoing power struggle between the two Asian superpowers, with China increasingly on the offensive. But, according to the Global Post’s Jonathan Adams, China and Japan are too economically interdependent to risk a full-scale conflict:

Nearby natural gas resources (Ed.: and potential oil reserves) make the islets’ location strategic…Japan has had greatest effective control…But China’s strong reaction to the latest incident reflects a newfound swagger, as the rising Asian power seeks to enforce a range of territorial claims, said Asia security expert and longtime China-watcher Willy Lam.

China has one of the world’s most rapidly modernizing navies and also Asia’s largest sea force, including more than 60 attack submarines and 75 destroyers and frigates, according to the Pentagon. And it’s got an aircraft carrier in the works. Japan has just 18 submarines — a number set to expand in response to the Chinese navy’s rise — and about 50 destroyers and frigates.

But a serious military showdown is unlikely, for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is the unprecedented economic ties between East Asia’s two big powers. In 2007, China surpassed the U.S. as Japan’s top economic partner. Since then, the two countries haven’t looked back: Two-way trade hit a record of nearly $140 billion in the first half of this year, a 34.5 percent jump from the same period last year, according to Japanese government figures. Japan’s exports to China are rising even faster than its imports, due to rising Chinese consumption that shows China’s increased importance as a market, not just the world’s factory.

All of which suggests that Japan has a strong interest in resolving the current spat quickly, and, to the extent possible, to Beijing’s satisfaction.

Adams also suggests that “China’s emergence as a fishing superpower” played a part in the country’s strong reaction to Japan’s arrests. Chinese fishing boats catch 17 million tons of fish a year, according to Adams, far more than the US or Japan. China’s roughly 300,000 motorized boats “have been involved in disputes with the U.S. Navy, the Indonesian coast guard and now Japan,” writes Adams.

The increased chest-thumping reflects China’s growing role as an East Asian hegemon, in case we needed more proof of that. Read the rest of the Global Post article here.

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  • rjs

    it wont lead to war because japan has been de-militarized since WWII…

  • Drea

    Good point. Japan is legally demilitarized. But would it call a potential conflict something other than war, if such potential existed? Something like “defensive maneuver”? I question how many teeth demilitarization actually has.

  • rjs

    there may be a series of skirmishes similar to the one you described but it’ll never amount to more that that…more likely, the ASEAN+3 free trade zone will eventually be expanded to include a common currency:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASEAN_Free_Trade_Area#ASEAN_Plus_Three

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_Currency_Unit